Irradiation: It’s Not Just for the Mail

Published February 1, 2002

After Sen. Tom Daschle’s office was the target of an anthrax letter last fall, he declared all mail should be irradiated “as soon as possible” to make the postal system safe for workers and the public. Irradiation would likely have prevented the four mail-related anthrax deaths that have occurred to date.

But irradiation could do far more, preventing literally thousands of American deaths and millions of non-fatal infections that attack Americans each year via the food supply. Standing in the way of this great benefit is a dedicated group of anti-technology activists successfully scaring consumers away from a food safety solution by claiming irradiation itself is a food safety problem.

With irradiation receiving long-overdue recognition as a public health tool, now is the perfect time to consider wider use of irradiation to treat foods, especially higher-risk foods such as ground meats and alfalfa sprouts.

White House and congressional mail is already being trucked to irradiation facilities for treatment prior to delivery, and the postal service is buying irradiation technology for installation at strategic postal facilities around the country. This program could eventually be instituted nationwide.

U.S. Slow to Respond

In awful contrast, the U.S. government dithered for years over approval of food irradiation when many other countries allowed irradiation of foods decades ago. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration didn’t approve irradiation of red meat and pork to prevent E. coli and salmonella until 1997, years after the Jack-in-the-Box tragedy.

While the anthrax scare has so far involved a handful of deaths and a few dozen infections, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates food microbes cause more than 75 million illnesses, kill 5,200 Americans every year, and hospitalize more than 300,000.

Food irradiation is now approved in more than 40 countries. The American Medical Association, the American Dietetic Association, and literally dozens of respected health and medical organizations around the world endorse its use to treat food. The World Health Organization calls buying irradiated food one of its 10 Golden Rules of Food Safety. There is simply no doubt whatsoever about the safety and effectiveness of food irradiation.

Some argue the problem is too many bacteria on our farms and in our farm animals. “Clean up the animals and factory farms before you start messing with my food,” they demand. But it is impossible to produce microbe-free foods.

Crops and livestock are produced in the great outdoors, where bacteria and fungi thrive. Most pathogens co-evolved with our animals and are naturally present in the digestive tracts of livestock.

Nor is so-called factory farming the problem. A recent study in Denmark found that 100 percent of organic, free-range chicken flocks tested positive for Campylobacter bacteria, compared to only one- third of conventional flocks.

Why the Delay?

Given the heavy human toll, why has it taken so long for the government to approve irradiation of foods?

Mainly, it is the result of public fear, whipped up by so-called consumer groups and other self-appointed elements of the fear industry. These groups have misrepresented food irradiation for decades, using the all-too-willing media to scare the public about mythical irradiation dangers. Yet study after study finds food irradiation not only safe, but safety-enhancing.

The anthrax scare may have finally demonstrated to the public the difference between real and imaginary hazards.

A year ago, barely 10 percent of consumers said they would buy irradiated foods if they were available. A new Porter Novelli survey conducted after the anthrax scare shows that more than half of consumers polled said the government should require irradiation to ensure a safe food supply.

Earlier this year, two nanny groups, The Center for Food Safety and Public Citizen, warned that further FDA approvals of irradiation “would amount to a serious potentially scandalous error in judgment.” The true error in judgment would be continuing to listen to the activists, rather than to public health experts and consumers.

Alex Avery is director of research at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Global Food Issues in Churchville, Virginia. This article first appeared December 26, 2001, in The Washington Times and is reprinted here with permission.